A New Zealand consumer watchdog has called out airlines for leaving passengers stranded and without compensation.
After a recent wave of cancellations and overbooked flights, Consumer NZ said they have received many complaints from travellers who have had plans disrupted without clear communication about compensation or rights.
On Thursday 181 flights were cancelled across New Zealand due to ferocious storm-force winds proving too dangerous for aircraft to land or take off at Wellington Airport.
Airlines warned passengers further disruptions would stretch into the final weekend of the school holidays with a massive backlog of stranded passengers not expected to clear until Sunday.
It was a similar story just two weeks ago at the start of the school holidays when wild weather at the top of the country and air crew sickness caused flights to be delayed as people faced unexpected disruption leaving Auckland.
The consumer watchdog addressed the situation in a recent article about when an airline was responsible for making sure stranded flyers were compensated.
"If your domestic flight is delayed or cancelled due to reasons within the airline's control the Civil Aviation Act (CAA) says you're entitled to compensation of up to 10 times the cost of the ticket, or the actual cost of delay, whichever is lower," advised the watchdog.
Apart from mechanical issues, there were a variety of circumstances when passengers should be compensated.
Cancellations due to staffing shortages as a result of sickness, or overbooked flights should be covered under the CAA. If the flight was delayed overnight, compensation should cover food and accommodation.
"If the airline says the disruption was out of its control, it needs to prove it. And if the airline doesn't pay, you can enforce your rights at the Disputes Tribunal," said Consumer NZ.
At the beginning of the July school holidays, Air New Zealand warned passengers to prepare for disruption, as they faced staff shortages due to crews falling ill with Covid-19.
With extremely busy customer care and call centre teams (which resulted in wait times of up to three hours ), the airline allowed passengers affected by disruption to rebook flights online. However, there has been some confusion over when passengers are entitled to compensation for flights they rebook themselves.
In some cases, passengers were not given information about refunds or accommodation options, in cases where flights were not available the same day.
One passenger, who was booked on an Air New Zealand flight from Queenstown to Auckland last week, said being the victim of a last-minute cancellation made a trip with an international connection and a 5-year-old, even more stressful.
"Air NZ told me by text message that my flight was cancelled (while I was at the gate, waiting to board)," they told Herald.
The reason for the cancellation was engineering issues, said the passenger, who was flying to Lisbon to be reunited with family for the first time since the pandemic.
"From what I heard it was not the only cancelled flight that day."
Some passengers were put on the next departing flights, but others were rebooked for the next day. After sitting around the airport floor "for hours" while the airline organised accommodation, travellers received more bad news.
"They then tell us they were having trouble finding accommodation so we had to book our own," the passenger said.
"We had to spend a night in a hotel in Queenstown rather than the Auckland hotel we had booked for that night."
Fortunately, the passenger and their child made the flight to Auckland the following day, and connecting flight to Dubai and eventually Lisbon.
What is Air New Zealand's policy?
When travel plans are impacted, chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said the aim is always to get customers to their destination as soon as possible.
"In a typical situation, this is usually on the same day, or following," Geraghty said.
The flight is cancelled for a reason within Air NZ's control
"We will provide overnight accommodation either arranged at the airport or to an agreed value, should customers make their own arrangements and on proof of receipt," Geraghty said.
In those cases, customers should get in touch with their receipt in order to arrange reimbursement.
If a flight has been cancelled due to weather
If bad weather strikes and customers must stay overnight, Geraghty said this is typically covered by the customer or their travel insurance.
"However, if a customer is part-way through their journey (in a stopover port) and the next flight is disrupted, we do our best to arrange appropriate accommodation for the night."
While it can be frustrating to face travel hiccups, Geraghty said the environment was a tough one for the airline.
"At the moment we are in a unique situation with a mixture of Covid, tumultuous weather and the flu impacting our network during the busiest period we've seen in two years."
For this reason, she encouraged travellers to consider purchasing travel insurance to help in the event of a disruption.